NC Man Thinks Big with Sustainable Wood Furniture Business

In Western North Carolina, one man's wood furniture business is promoting both economic growth and sustainable forestry. The Asheville Citizen-Times wrote a lengthy article on Saturday about Appalachian Designs, the business of Lang Hornthal. Hornthal's commitment to the forest resources of the Appalachians has helped him build his business, and it's a model he is promoting through Root Cause, a marketing campaign for local wood products. He's even finding markets for overlooked woods like mountain laurel and rhododendron. 

It's a promising story from a sector that's seen very hard times since the recession. But with Appalachia's enormous forest resources, it's a model to take a closer look at. Says the article,

Like the trees populating the wooded mountains framed by his office window, it will take thousands of little efforts to change the landscape of the local economy.

“…I’ve been able to maintain jobs and create new jobs that can be sustained,” he said.

His big idea, however, is built of basic materials.

“My plan is all about supporting local businesses, materials and being good stewards of the forest.”

Click below to read the entire article. 

Fairview craftsman aims to create jobs while maintaining region's forests

Written by Carol Motsinger

Lang Hornthal may be the owner of Appalachian Designs, but he’s not the boss.

As the manufacturer of high-end custom rustic furniture, stairs and railings, Hornthal serves his materials. He relinquishes much of his artistic control to his local forest products, as the shape, color and texture of the wood dictates design. The results celebrate the wood’s natural character — its imperfect, honest charm.

His line of handcrafted architectural elements, however, is just one avenue Hornthal pursues to honor the lush forests that surround his Fairview studio. With the help of a 2010 U.S. Department of Agriculturegrant, he launched an initiative to increase responsible use of Western North Carolina’s forests, promote locally sourced and hand-crafted products and create jobs by creating a market for underutilized forest materials.

Hornthal is now planting seeds to create future opportunities for his colleagues and collaborators in the local forest product industry, but his energetic vision has already borne a revamped business model.

“Instead of just thinking that I would do better when the overall economy got better, I started to think about the big picture,” he said of the immediate impact of the $75,000 grant, called WNC Forest Products Cooperative Marketing Project Grant.

“It sounds crazy, but there have been benefits to the recession,” he said with a laugh. “It’s been nice to be able to slow down and plan. … Instead of just waiting and worrying about when the housing market will rebound, I’m thinking about what other jobs are going to be available. It’s empowered me.”

A sustainable future

Hornthal’s positivity is a true tool. His passion for the land and the people of his adopted hometown is just as authentic as the work he produces.

He created Root Cause, a marketing campaign conceived as a way for the grant to boost not only Appalachian Designs, but “all jobs involving forest products,” he said. He recently unveiled a new logo to identify local forest products so that the woodworker community can brand goods consistently to reach local-conscious customers.

It’s a modern update for a well-rooted tradition in Asheville. The city is long-considered the birthplace of forest conservation partly because Biltmore housed the nation’s first forestry school. Downtown’s Battery Park Hotel also hosted the founding meeting of the Appalachian National Park Association in November 1899, which was instrumental in passing dramatic conservation laws that protected public forest lands.

Although areas like Pisgah National Forest, the first national forest in the East, thrive as living monuments to that legacy, advocates like Hornthal stress that the conservation conversation should be recast to capitalize on modern trends.

“We’ve got all these great unique materials that are native to Southern Appalachia,” he said, and this rich natural resource is similar to WNC’s agricultural heritage that’s been revived by the strong local food movement.

But what is missing from the forest products community is a splashy marketing and collaborative force like the local food movement’s Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project.

“There is no doubt, from the very first time that I was here, that this area supports small businesses,” he said. “And when you couple that with incredible awareness of the need to take care of all of the great resources we have in Western North Carolina, it is ripe for this type of project.”

Hornthal is working with Southern Forest Network, a local sustainable forestry organization, to build the local market for products with sustainability certification and branding. Appalachian Designs is also slated to become one of the first businesses in the region to achieve the Forest Stewardship Council label through Southern Forest Network’s Group Certification Program.

And in a more casual way, since Appalachian Designs is both a buyer and seller of woods like locust, hickory and laurel, the business is poised to be a welcoming meet-up for industry members.

In the summer, local foresters, sawyers, landowners and business owners gathered in his new studio, he wrote in an entry of Blogs on Logs, a section of his Appalachian Designs website dedicated to the Root Cause initiative.

This group spoke about how members can “help local landowners manage the asset that is their forest land. From keeping out invasive exotic species to making room for the trees that add the most value to property, we batted around ways to offset the many costs facing land owners in maintaining their land,” he wrote.

The experience reinforced the direction of Hornthal’s business, he noted.

New space, new direction

The new studio nestled in a Fairview valley is one of the rewards of Hornthal’s successful grant proposal.

When he first moved his business from Raleigh to Fairview in 1997, he settled in an old chicken shack, which still sags with a thin industrial paleness. His current space stands strong upon a hill looking down on the shack.

“There were tarps on the ceiling to catch water from the leaks in the roof we couldn’t find,” he said about his first studio. It wasn’t heated properly and we had raccoons living in the ceiling. (the shack) lent itself to the rustic vibe,” he added with his trademark positivity. “But the space we have now is a much better shop and concentration yard.”

The building features a small showroom of Appalachian Designs finished products, including a bed and chair, as well as work areas for Hornthal’s two full-time employees (In 2007, his best year, Hornthal employed six full-time workers, he said).

About 85 percent of Hornthal’s sales are generated through his website, which he also recently revamped.

In 1993, without any formal woodworking training, Hornthal made his first log bed with a friend in Raleigh, inspired by the rustic lodge furniture he enjoyed during his stint living in Steamboat Springs, Colo.

He jokes that that rough style fit his skill set. “The joinings are supposed to be rougher,” Hornthal said.

They sold the bed at a flea market and immediately received another bed order. Although his friend moved on to other projects, Hornthal’s been filling orders since.

He moved the business to WNC in 1997 partly to be closer to the majority of his residential customers, and the materials he treasures.

In addition to his work for private residencies, Appalachian Designs has built a range of commercial and public projects throughout the country. Highlights include the more than 15,000 feet of rhododendron fencing used to surround the Untamed Roller Coaster at New Hampshire’s Canobie Lake Park, as well as log railing for Marco Island Historical Museum in Florida.

Making connections

Bill Pauer, project manager with Platt Architecture in Brevard, has worked with Hornthal for the past six or seven years.

"There are several people in the area who do what he does,” Pauer said of Hornthal’s rustic style. “But what is unique to Lang is that he’s a professional. He is good at meeting a homeowner and listening to what he or she wants.

“Most of our clients, when they are not from here and are coming to WNC,” he added, “are looking for homes and products that feel like they belong here. They don’t want to bring their Atlanta home to the mountains … they want stuff that looks and feels like Western North Carolina, and Lang’s stuff fits that mold.”

Appalachian Designs was also a rustic fit for Dartmouth College’s outdoor program’s lobby, said Mike Silverman, outdoor operations assistant.

“I found him online and the more I saw of his samples, I thought they just looked heavy and that they belonged in our lobby,” he said, noting that he purchased a bench and two arm chairs but expects to order more items. “We wanted something authentic. … But it’s not just the work itself (that is appealing); he is very passionate and he really portrayed that to me. I totally like his style and felt very, very comfortable even though we had never met.”

These days, more people are calling Hornthal asking for work.

“We’ve gotten more calls from people who are wanting to sell materials,” he said. “I know these are people who may have lost their jobs and are looking for alternative ways to get income.”

Because the new studio boasts more inventory storage space, Hornthal is now developing a yard for underutilized forest materials. Appalachian Designs buys and sells small-diameter wood locust, hickory, pine, rhododendron and mountain laurel that often goes to waste on logging and construction sites.

Since there hasn’t been a market for the small-diameter wood, it hasn’t been harvested. Removing this wood, in some circumstances, aids healthy forest management and limits forest fires.

Hornthal envisions this market as an new income opportunity for private landowners, as well as loggers and gatherers.

Since launching this branch of his business, he’s already buying regularly from two new providers, he said.

Two area families’ lives have already been improved through Root Cause, and for Hornthal, it’s the beginning of what he hopes will grown into a dense collection of success stories.

Like the trees populating the wooded mountains framed by his office window, it will take thousands of little efforts to change the landscape of the local economy.

“(The grant) made me think broader … and I’ve been able to maintain jobs and create new jobs that can be sustained,” he said.

His big idea, however, is built of basic materials.

“My plan is all about supporting local businesses, materials and being good stewards of the forest.”